Menopausal Years – A Natural Approach

RoseMarie Pierce, B.Sc. Pharm., “The Holistic Pharmacist”

Menopause is a gateway through which a woman enters a new stage in life. The transition into menopause is usually experienced in the years between the forties and mid-fifties. Each woman’s menopause is unique, yet there are common characteristics. In addition to hormonal shifts, the circulatory, digestive, and nervous systems are affected causing symptoms that can be confusing and debilitating. These physical changes create emotional chaos for some women: a sense of unease, discomfort, emotional extremes, or confusion. Christiane Northrup, M.D., in her book The Wisdom of Menopause, states “Our nervous systems are being, quite literally, rewired. It’s as simple as this: Our brains are changing.”

Menopause is actually rather a new phenomenon. In past centuries, the average life span of a woman was little more than fifty years. Menopause was one of the signs of old age. Life expectancy has increased; people tend to live well into their eighties and nineties, women at menopause now still have one-third to one-half of their lives in front of them. Yet until recently, there has been relatively little in the way of positive information published encouraging women to embrace menopause as the gateway to a new beginning.

This new beginning or “Change of Life” is a woman’s transition toward becoming a true Wise Woman. It is a process that requires being in touch with one’s inner guidance and taking personal responsibility for the health of one’s own body and the health of one’s own brain. Reclaiming menopause, embracing the phases of the female life cycle and celebrating the giving over of youth for wisdom is asked of women at this Wise Woman stage. Mostly, it involves slowing down, taking stock, and being real with yourself.

For further in-depth exploration into reclaiming menopause, the author offers evening lectures or Hormonal Health and weekend workshops called “The Change of Life – A Women’s Journey” on the Sunshine Coast in beautiful British Columbia.

menopause chart

Stages of the Menopausal Transition
The transition stage leading up to menopause is known as perimenopause and may last as long as 8 to15 years yet menopause itself, medically speaking, is defined as the last menstrual period or the cessation of menstrual bleeding. Postmenopause is considered to start approximately one year after menopause has occurred. The following chart demonstrates a timeline of menopausal symptoms and hormone-influenced conditions through these three stages.

Hot flashes, accompanied by a lack of sleep, are the most common symptoms of the menopause transition. When a woman has not experienced her period for one year, this means that the ovaries are no longer producing eggs and have greatly slowed down hormonal production. The subsequent decreased hormonal blood levels are the main cause of naturally-occurring menopause. With estrogen production significantly reduced and progesterone no longer secreted (from the ovaries), the uterus lining does not develop – therefore menstrual periods stop. Experts believe that this slowdown in estrogen production may trigger the body’s temperature control system to malfunction, setting off a hot flash even though temperature adjustment isn’t necessary or needed.

During postmenopause there is a slow, gradual decline in sex hormone levels, eventually to be maintained at low but stable levels. If the adrenal glands are healthy, they will take over a low rate of estrogen and progesterone production. If the adrenals are exhausted or compromised, this exacerbates a different set of changes in the body, which tend to be more long-term. Vaginal dryness and incontinence are two of the most distressing, and as well, the risks of heart disease, blood sugar disturbances, inflammatory conditions and osteoporosis can all increase if the adrenal glands are not healthy.

It is very important during all stages of the menopausal years to maintain adequate rest, to engage in creative activities and to practice stress-reduction, for example meditation. The use of Flower Essence Therapy offers help in alleviating emotional and psychological stress. I particularly like to use the following flower essences: Chamomile (for emotional balance, helps with mood swings and irritability); Vervain (for nervous exhaustion, helps the body to centre and ground); and Dandelion (helps tension in muscles due to over striving and overeating). Flower Essence Therapy may be combined with herbal remedies and other supplements. The above measures have the added benefit of protecting the adrenal glands by reducing the stress load.

Look for part 2 of the article in the next issue, for my favourite nutritional and herbal supplements as well as lifestyle factors to help protect the adrenal glands, support the liver and vitalize the reproductive organs – at the beginning and throughout a healthy menopausal transition.

Part 2

Even though menopause is not an illness, it will bring attention to one’s health and lifestyle issues. In fact, most of the symptoms stem from years of: not getting enough sleep, eating on the run, choosing the wrong foods, running on caffeine or adrenaline and not exercising! Prevention is always the smartest medicine and women can make changes to their diet and lifestyle during peri-menopause. And if you are already experiencing hot flashes, night sweats, moods swings and vaginal dryness – it’s not too late.

Start by supporting the liver and digestive systems with lots of healthy greens including dandelion greens and kale (easily available given where we live). Instead of the morning coffee, substitute green tea or organic cocoa drinks – you will get supportive energy and way more of those health-giving polyphenols. Polyphenols from these sources and berries are known to help lower blood pressure, cholesterol and risk of heart disease as well as help memory and brain function.

A woman can protect her body from cellular damage, the kind that causes wrinkles on the outside and the inside of the body, by taking a good quality vitamin and mineral supplements. The addition of the carotenoids lycopene (found in tomato sauce) and lutein (found in kale, spinach, collards) offers protection against uterine and breast cancer. A healthy diet with the addition of certain phytoestrogen foods, such as organic, non-GMO soy (fermented is the best), ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil, clover sprouts, peas, nuts and seeds will accrue a protective action against breast, bowel and other cancers, and osteoporosis, as well as help menopausal symptoms. Drinking a combination of lemon juice, aloe vera & minerals every morning can support liver detoxification and creates an alkaline pH balance, helps to balance all the endocrine hormones as well as reduces inflammation and bone demineralization. (find the recipe or the Morning Rise & Shine formula info at http://www.sunstreams.ca/032_MorningRiseS.html)

The use of herbal remedies is a safe and inexpensive way to support the female hormonal transition at menopause. There are many valuable hormone-balancing and phytohormonal herbs that have been used for hundreds of years in traditional herbal medicine and have also been scientifically tested. Many of the following herbs work well together by enhancing the activity of the other herbs and are often found in herbal combinations.

For the relief of menopausal symptoms, the synergistic herbal combination of Black Cohosh, Vitex (Chasteberry) and Dong Quai can help to balance and strengthen the entire female system. This combination is useful for acute symptoms, i.e. hot flashes, mood swings and insomnia. Black Cohosh helps regulate body temperature and thereby control hot flashes. Its estrogen-like activity makes it ideal for supporting the estrogen-deficient menopausal stage and a recent study published in the International Journal of Cancer states it may cut their risk of breast cancer by more than 50 percent. Vitex’s primary action appears to be to increase progesterone levels. Dong Quai is a phytoestrogen, a plant estrogen, which binds with estrogen receptor sites in the body at a time when estrogen levels are low. The herb Vervain was known as one of the sacred Druid matriarchal herbs used to relieve insomnia and calm mental stress. Siberian Ginseng helps to support the adrenals and increase mental awareness. Maca powder or extract, a dehydrated, cruciferous root vegetable, has proven to be very effective in eliminating hot flashes and depression, and in increasing energy levels. Motherwort tincture has been found to reduce the severity, frequency and duration of hot flashes, ease stressed nerves, and relieve anxiety and insomnia. These are some of my favourites.

The prevention of osteoporosis, weight gain, diabetes and heart disease requires more extensive programs and lifestyle changes, and will be covered in future articles.

References:
1. Northrup, Christiane. The Wisdom of Menopause N.Y.: Bantam Books, March 2001, pg. 9-133.
2. www.drnorthrup.com
3. Lee, John R. What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause N.Y.: Warner Books, May 1996.
4. www.johnleemd.com
5. Ford, Gillian. Listening to Your Hormones: from PMS to Menopause CA: Prima Publ., 1996.
6. Bolen, Jean Shinoda. Goddess in Older Women N.Y.: HarperCollins Publ., 2001 pg. IX-XXVI
7. Crawford, A.M. Herbal Remedies for Women CA.: Prima Publ. 1997 pg. 231-257.
8. Newall, C.A. et al. Herbal Medicines, a Guide for Health-Care Professionals G.B.: Pharmaceutical Press, 1996

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RoseMarie Pierce, B.Sc.Pharm, earned her degree in Pharmacy from Dalhousie University in 1972. After extensive studies in herbal and nutritional medicine, RoseMarie integrated these disciplinary practices with her pharmacy education to become Canada’s first Holistic Pharmacist.